InGoal update: Capitals, Ducks manage three goalies differently
Plus: Miller and Lundqvist turning New York into a state of robbery; Rangers almost knock out star stopper in practice; Vokoun tired of losing in Florida; Howard not out long in Detroit; this and more in the March 29 update.
The Washington Capitals’ handling of an impressive, but relatively young and inexperienced, three-goaltender rotation has made one thing clear: They really don’t seem to want one, at least not on the same team at the same time.
That much was obvious after the Capitals promptly dispatched Braden Holtby back to Hershey of the American League, mere days after shutting out Montreal over the weekend for his sixth straight victory in the NHL. But that isn’t the only thing that Washington’s three-headed goalie monster has proven about a Washington team trying to shake off past premature playoff exits.
To understand just how much the Capitals have changed their approach to team defense, just listen to forward Brooks Laich talk about the three goalies on NHL.com:
“All three of those guys, and this is honest, it doesn’t change our team one bit as far as our mindset … Whether (Michal Neuvirth) is in net, (Semyon Varlamov) is in net or Holtby, I think we play a solid defensive game, don’t give up a lot of chances and whoever is in net comes up with the saves when we need them.”
Solid defensive game? Don’t give up a lot of chances? It would appear that the run-and-gun Capitals really have turned over a new leaf after all. After a playoff catastrophe against Montreal last spring and a poor start to the current season, coach Bruce Boudreau decided to alter course. With six games left in the season and the Caps in the thick of the race for first spot in the East, the about-face seems to have worked. Even Alexander Ovechkin (29 goals and 77 points, his lowest totals since 2006-07) seems to have realized that more scoring doesn’t win more games if the puck keeps going in at the back end.
So what about that back end? Are the Capitals’ goalies better because of the team committment to defense? Or is team defense better because the goalies are so good? There is in fact some truth to the Caps’ defensive transformation: they are ninth in shots against at 29.1 and fourth in goals against at 2.33. Last year they were 18th and 16th respectively in those categories.
Meanwhile, their three netminders seem to be maintaining focus and not starting any controversies by complaining about sharing the net. Any goalie who has ever played in a threesome will tell you it isn’t much fun. Still, putting up with the situation is always easier to swallow when the team is winning. Imagine Holtby not getting his nose out of joint after winning NHL player of the week honors in mid-March, blanking the Canadiens Saturday and being rewarded with a demotion:
“It’s the reality of things,” Holtby told the Washington Post. “That’s life, and I’m not gonna be any more excited or disappointed. I knew that coming in, and I was prepared to deal with it.”
It helps that Holtby knew coming in he that he’d be playing, due to Neuvirth being sick and the oft-injured Varlamov having played his first game in more than a month the night before. Still, listening to Boudreau talk about the confidence his team seems to get in front of Holtby, it’s not hard to imagine him reaching for the phone again – and quickly – should things start to go south in the playoffs a couple of weeks from now.
For now, though, the smart money seems to be on Neuvirth to start the postseason, since he has the better record (24 wins to 10 each for Varlamov and Holtby). But don’t forget an inexperienced Varlamov got the net in the playoffs two years ago when Boudreau got itchy feet over Jose Theodore’s play. The Washington coach, from most reports, seems like someone not afraid of taking chances. NHL analyst Craig Button seems to be hinting at a possible redux of the 1971 playoffs, when rookie Ken Dryden got the call over veteran Rogie Vachon, subsequently going on the win the Cup, the Conn Smyth and the Calder Trophies, and Boudreau doesn’t exactly dispel such notions outright.
“I don’t think it’s that important that we identify one guy as the guy because we could change them,” Boudreau said. “We have 1, 1-A and 1-B all ready to play.”
Meanwhile, in Anaheim Ray Emery continues to be lined up to win at least one trophy this year – if not the Stanley Cup then perhaps the Masterton for perservearance in the face of adversity- after coming back from an incredibly painful hip surgery.
At 5-0-0 (after surviving a 5-4 come-from-behind victory over Colorado with 31 saves on Monday night) and with a 1.88 goals-against average and .938 save percentage since joining the team in February (and even after giving up four in that game), Emery is not a hard guy to vote for to stay in the net. But just as in Washington, Anaheim has a surplus of talent between the pipes.
De facto No.1 Jonas Hiller would normally be at the top of that list, but after missing more than six weeks recovering from vertigo symptoms, Hiller struggled in his return, getting yanked after giving up three goals on just nine shots in less than 12 minutes. Head coach Randy Carlyle doesn’t regret putting Hiller back in, hinting to the Orange Country Register he’ll do it again:
“I don’t think we rushed him back at all,” Carlyle said. “His performance was not what we’re accustomed to or he’s accustomed to. We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time laboring over what was the correct amount of time [for recovery]. When the player gives you the green light and says he’s ready to go, then he plays. So there’s no second-guessing.”
It was interesting, though, that Hiller was not on the bench to back up Emery Monday in Colorado. That job went to Dan Ellis, who is 6-3-1 since his arrival from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline, but like Emery against the Avalanche has survived some shaky starts ad been bailed out by the Ducks’ offense to compile that record.
Few would argue that a healthy, game-ready Hiller gives Anaheim the best chance in the playoffs. The problem is that giving him a few more chances to find his form could put the eighth-place Ducks’ chances of even making the post season in jeopardy.
The state of New York facing a robbery problem (on the ice at least)
It wouldn’t be fair to give undue bad publicity to a wonderful state like New York, but two of its fine cities are proving to be less than welcoming to opposing shooters, with Buffalo’s Ryan Miller and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist named the First and Third Stars, respectively, in the NHL for the week that ended March 27.
While it is true that game stats can say a lot (in three wins Miller stopped 83 of 85 shots during the week, with a .976 save percentage and two shutouts. Lundqvist was no slouch either, with a 2-0-1 record, 0.32 goals-against average, .987 save percentage and only one goal allowed in 78 shots), they don’t describe what kind of larceny is going on here (Larceny, by the way, is the model of Reebok pads that Miller wears).
Miller, despite his slight 6-foot-2, 170-pound frame, has averaged 63 games a season for six years and has been the only goalie able to lead the Sabres into the post-season (three times) since Dominik Hasek left Buffalo.
Lundqvist, meanwhile, has won 30 games or more since his rookie season six years ago, setting an NHL record for such a run to start a career, while often playing through injury and adversity. The latest came off the stick of teammate Marc Staal in practice, a high shot that caught Lundqvist in the mask last Thursday, both stunning and angering the New York star.
Given Rangers shooters have already eliminated Lundqvist’s safety net with a high shot that broke the collarbone of veteran backup Martin Biron in practice, just hours before the trade deadline, thus leaving unproven Chad Johnson as the only other goalie, you’d think they might want to keep it down on Lundqvist. But such a suggestion by a New York Post reporter brought a reprimand – to the inquisitor, not the shooters – from coach John Tortorella:
“You show a tremendous amount of disrespect to the players when you ask that question.”
Of course many goalies might suggest it’s just as disrespectful to be wasting head high shots in practice. But maybe the Rangers are just used to seeing Lundqvist play through bumps and bruises. He’d already shaken off a stiff neck from a crease collision, which follows a pattern Rangers goalie guru Benoit Allaire talked about in an interview with Goalie’s World Magazine in 2009:
“When you look at the record of great goalies like Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, you see remarkable stats. However, the stats never say if a goalie was sick or injured in a particular game. Henrik, like Roy or Brodeur, will find a way to play even if he is not 100 per cent … I know that there are some other goalies would not go in the net, yet he plays and ends up with the win.
Even nice guys don’t like finishing last
While he is mostly off of everyone’s radar because of where he plays, Florida’s Tomas Vokoun has been as much of a stalwart in the Panther’s goal as Roberto Luongo was before being traded. Goalie’s World Magazine rated him in their top five for four of the last five years – and that is on a team that has missed the playoffs for 9 straight years.
Nevertheless, holding the walls of the fort up when the roof is burning down around one’s head can take its toll. Vokoun has never been known as the most outspoken or controverisal guy, quietly going about his job as one of the best kept secrets in the NHL goalie brotherhood (just wait until he becomes a free agent in a couple of months).
After shutout losses to both the Rangers and Blackhawks, though, Vokoun’s ire was raised enough for him to speak out in an interview with Florida’s Sunsentinel.com:
“It’s the same players over and over,” Vokoun said. “We haven’t scored in two games, and we’re giving up 3-on-2’s, guys are pinching up. It is what it is, but that’s not ‘playing for the team’ to me.”
One interesting stat is that Vokoun has been in a league-leading 47 one goal games, on a team that is third-last in offense. Kind of like a poor man’s version of Carey Price- a great goalie on a team that can’t score often enough. To prove the point, consider that Montreal and Florida are respectively 23rd and 27th in offense, while they are ninth and 12th in goals against.
Sounds like it isn’t the goalie who is failing to pull the load. Here’s how Vokoun himself put it recently:
Absolutely, it’s stressful for a goalie and puts pressure on you for every mistake you make… People don’t realize you can win 6-4 and allow three bad goals during the game but nobody remembers anything. Lose 2-1 and give up a bad goal in the third period but make 40 other saves and they’re like, ‘Oh my God!’
One-timers from around the Goaltending World (Wide Web):
~ The Detroit Red Wings are breathing a sigh of relief after an MRI showed thatwas not a serious as previously suspected. With veteran backup Chris Osgood out until at least the last weekend of the season – and having not played since Jan. 4 because of sports hernia surgery – and struggling prospect Thomas McCollum called up from the ECHL to back up Joey MacDonald, Detroit fans will be happy to hear Howard could be back as early as Wednesday. Howard certainly was: “Just a sprain … Dodged a bullet.”
~ After seeing playing partner Craig Anderson turn some strong post-trade play into a four-year contract extension in Ottawa,to use the Senators’ last few games to earn a job of his own for next season. McElhinney, who should get one more start according to coach Cory Clouston, is 3-2-0 with a .932 save percentage in Ottawa since being claimed off waivers from Tampa Bay (who had just acquired him in a trade with Anaheim for Dan Ellis).
~ Calder Trophy candidate Corey Crawford and the Chicago Blackhawks have decided to postpone contract discussions until the season is over. It was perhaps a wise decision after Crawford admitted the talks were on his mind as the Blackhawks battled for one of the last playoff spots in the brutal Western Conference. The fact Crawford became the first Chicago goalie in 15 years to win 30 games with his 3-2 overtime win in Detroit Monday probably won’t raise the price too much, but the Blackhawks might face another Antti Niemi situation if Crawford leads the team on another lengthy playoff run. Of course next year’s team won’t be in nearly as tight as salary cap crunch.